Buried Talents: Further on How Elders Oversee the Church

In a comment to the previous post, Alan points out that the Old Testament’s use of “overseer” refers to a supervisor or overseer in the workplace. Think “middle management.” And it’s true.

I was already familiar with the passages. I’ve been looking at the OT verses relevant to eldering for another series I’ve been working on, which I may never get to.

The question of just what level of authority an elder has is a subtle and often misunderstood one, I think. I remember years ago being told by an elder that he was concerned about Wednesday nights. He was afraid that by requiring Wednesday night attendance, he was sending people to hell, because so many weren’t attending!

Ever since then, I’ve felt the need to re-think how we see an elder’s authority. You see, I think our authority varies with the subject matter. Sometimes we’re shepherds, sometimes overseers, and sometimes elders; that is, we are sometimes acting pastorally, sometimes as administrators, and sometimes as protectors against false teachers (not that these are precise definitions of the three titles). And our authority varies depending on the “hat” we are wearing at the time. I mean, as a shepherd, I can hardly order someone to stop mourning! Pastoring is really not much about authority at all.

And so, this is an outline of what may one day be a more comprehensive look at how elders ought to work — concluding with some further thoughts on women. (I think about them a lot, you know.)

I’m not dead set on all of this. This is for thinking and talking about.

Overseer

First, there are administrative details that just have to be decided by someone — such as the time to start the assembly or how many classes to hold. There can only be one answer. The elders certainly get to decide such things, although they can delegate them if they wish. And it’s not much power, really. (Most of this really ought to be delegated.)

The way we do church, the ministers fit in here, too. We pay our ministers, and I can’t imagine in a church our size (650+ average attendance) taking every personnel question before the congregation. I know some churches where they’ve tried this, and it doesn’t go well. Thus, we are true overseers — in the Old Testament sense — when it comes to staff. We hire and fire, give raises, do personnel reviews, and set employee policies.

Of course, some of this is delegable, too. I know some churches that have a minister who hires and fires and otherwise handles administrative details for the elders. Of course, this minister still gets hired and fired by the elders.

In my church, we try hard to make the ministers part of the team and work alongside them — other than in those cases where we have no choice but to put our employer hats on — periodic reviews, raises, and all that. None of us enjoys that part of the job.

Elders

The elders are charged with protecting the church from false doctrine. But I don’t they’ve finished their task once they’ve studied an issue and taken a vote. They’ve not protected the flock until they’ve persuaded the flock.

If the church isn’t persuaded, the elders have only protected the church from erroneous practice but not from erroneous doctrine – which will lead to serious problems down the road when the elders retire and the next generation comes along. And lots of elders make this mistake. (And if you can’t persuade most of your church, you just might be wrong.)

When it comes to changing practice, persuasion is also essential. Imagine that an eldership concludes that women may pass communion (while standing. We already let them pass it sitting, of course.). Well, they can’t actually have women pass communion until they’ve persuaded their congregation this is okay. Otherwise, they have Romans 14 issues — and the women won’t do it if they think it’s wrong!

Shepherds

If the elders call people to participate in a visitation program, and if people do so purely out of compulsion, not only are their hearts not in it, they aren’t truly obedient. They are acting out of fear or duty but not because they truly want to honor God.

Threaten your members with hellfire unless they visit the sick in the hospital, and visitation will not be an act of love for the sick. It’ll just be self-love (protecting one’s own skin) and hence not Christianity at all.

Therefore, elders really have no choice but to lead by persuasion, example, and by helping the members have Christ formed in them.

Discipline

Now, occasionally, we have to speak to members about the Bible’s teachings on disfellowshipping members. But the verses quite plainly give that authority to the assembly (Matt 18, 1 Cor 5), and it doesn’t work very well if the members aren’t, on the whole, on board. In fact, there are horror stories about what happens when an eldership attempts to disfellowship someone and the church does not agree with the decision.

I think this is also an “elder” sort of decision — the kind of discipline a Israelite synagogue or village eldership would impose. It may be the meaning of the several commands in the Law of Moses that certain people be “cut off from his people.”

Women

Now, if we were to appoint a committee to decide the times for services and we had women on the committee — and even a female chair — I don’t think my church would bat an eye. We are quite used to women being very involved in committee work.

And if we, like some Baptist Churches, had a personnel committee with women on it, no one would much care, so long as they weren’t over the ministers.

When a woman minister (we have two on staff) goes to a hospital to pray for a sick member, they are delighted for her to be there (and our female ministers are quite gifted pastorally). We get no complaints about the pastoral ministrations of our female ministers.

In fact, about the only thing many churches would really insist that only the elders do is hire and fire the ministers, set the doctrinal course of the church, and handle discipline — so long the elders exercise some level of ultimate oversight of the church’s ministry. People do expect the elders to know what’s going on and to step in when things go too badly.

A congregation’s willingness to allow women to serve on committees and otherwise exercise delegated authority varies a lot from church to church. Some churches will not allow women to attend business meetings, be a majority on a committee, or chair a committee with men on it. Others allow women nearly any administrative role so long as what they do is ultimately subject to the elders. It’s hard to generalize.

But certainly the trend is toward allowing women greater and greater latitude to use their gifts in committee work and program oversight — and those churches that don’t move in this direction quickly run out of talent, especially if they are growing churches. (Growing churches struggle to find leadership because so many members are novices.)

Elders are learning to delegate, and they often find that they can most effectively delegate to a woman or a team that has women on it — because that’s often where the needed talents are. Therefore, in countless churches, many women already exercise authority that would have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. Indeed, they already do many things that 10 or 20 years ago elders did.

And so, as we more and more recognize the gifts God has given our women members, and as our elders learn to lead by delegation and by persuasion, the gap between what men and women can do in church can (and often does) become quite small — even in churches with a hierarchical theology.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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5 Responses to Buried Talents: Further on How Elders Oversee the Church

  1. Alan says:

    Hi Jay,

    We're pretty much on the same page on this. There are many areas where the type of authority that is actually employed is persuasion. The elders lay out their desired direction and their reasoning. As long as the congregation finds it plausible, they go along without significant protest. Given the Hebrews 13 instructions that the church should "go along with" their leaders, that works pretty effectively in most matters. If the elders have the respect of the church, their recommendations and requests will also be respected. I think of it as a softer form of authority.

    And yes, we have women playing significant roles in the church — just not in things like public teaching / preaching to mixed groups. We actually pay a salary to both the minister and his wife, and we ask her to be equally engaged in the work through her leadership of the women. We haven't appointed women as deacons yet, though I'm not sure we won't do that at some point. When we plan the calendar for the church, the elders, ministers, and their wives all meet together and discuss it. etc…

  2. Recently I have also thought a lot about elders. We have a very good eldership. I am proud to be part of this congregation working with a really good group of elders. Over the past three years our congregation has grown in many ways. Not the least of these is our growth toward a more progressive direction in doing the Lord's work. One of our deacons has not come on board. He and his wife are upset with the change of direction. They continue to work just below the surface. They question the authority and effectiveness of the elders. Their complaints and questions are never presented in public. It is always done just below the surface. Actually it must be very similar to the murmuring that Moses must have experienced. How do we deal with this without taking away from the growth and energies of the church? Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

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  4. Thanks for your thoughts!!

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